TCBA members swarm to meetings each month through November
The 12 bee hives in Conrad Legatt’s bee yard or apiary are located in a grove of walnut trees in a staggered arrangement.
“You wouldn’t want to set them in straight lines. The bees might get disoriented – they wouldn’t know which one was their hive,” says Conrad. “In that way, they are kind of like people. If you live in an apartment building, you have numbers on each door so you – and anyone else – can find which one is yours.”
Conrad stands near one of the hives, watching them and talking about bees and beekeeping. The bees fly back and forth from their hives to their destinations – flowers in fields, gardens, and pastures in the surrounding area –paying no attention to us. Bees often travel two to three miles and can go as far as five miles from their hives to collect nectar, from which they make honey and pollen, with which they feed their young.
The asymmetrical arrangement of the beehives is tempered by the hives all being of similar height and all having their entrances facing south. The tall stacks of white boxes are placed around the shady grove with plenty of space between them. On the north side of each hive is a small handle, which allows access to the screened drawer beneath the hive in which excess bee pollen is collected. As we talk, Conrad pulls out each drawer and pours the golden-brown nuggets of bee pollen into a bucket. Later, he will clean the bee pollen to get it ready for sale.
Bee pollen is only one of several bee products which beekeepers collect. Honey, of course, is the most well known of bee products. Honeybees produce honey from the nectar which they collect from flowering plants. The honey they produce in the summer feeds the bees throughout the winter. As it happens, most colonies of honeybees produce more honey than they can use, so beekeepers collect a portion of the honey, leaving the rest for the bees.
Conrad points to one of the few shorter stacks of boxes. “That one there is not as strong a colony. It won’t make it through the winter, so I won’t even try to overwinter it. I’ll just extract all the honey from it this fall.” After letting this hive die off, Conrad will start up a new colony in the spring with a new queen.
In creating their hive, honeybees also create beeswax, which they use to seal off the cells in their honeycomb. Beeswax is another product that beekeepers collect when they are removing honey from the hive. Beeswax is often used to make candles, but it is also used in lip balms and creams and can be used to waterproof boots, gloves, saddles and other leather items. There are many other uses for beeswax, such as lubricating a sticky zipper or polishing granite countertops. Bow hunters use beeswax to lubricate the bow string when hunting.
Bee pollen has been called the new “superfood” by many nutrition gurus. Some believe that it is an energy booster and that it assists in building up immunity to pollen allergies. Bee pollen has also been credited with soothing stomach problems. The pollen literally sticks to the backs and legs of the bees as they are collecting nectar. Although bees use it to feed their young, a certain amount falls off and can be collected by beekeepers. Conrad sells his cleaned bee pollen directly to consumers who like to use the “raw” bee pollen. It can also be found in health food stores in pill or capsule form. Bee pollen is considered an herbal supplement; the many positive benefits attributed to bee pollen by its adherents have not been proven by medical research.
The Tri-County Beekeepers Association sells local honey – both liquid and with honeycomb – as well as beeswax to interested fairgoers in their annual booth at the Benton County Fair. They also sell honey straws or honey stix, which are small plastic “straws” filled with flavored honey. These are great introductions to honey for children and those who just want a fun snack or energy boost. Having a booth at the fair is also a way to educate people about bees. There is a sample working hive with live bees, so folks can see the inner workings of a bee hive. Kids can locate the queen bee and listen to the buzz of the bees by putting an ear near the screened opening. This year’s demonstrations of honey extraction were well attended, with many people taking photos or videos of the techniques used. The booth itself was crowded, with people purchasing honey and asking questions.
The Tri-County Beekeepers Association has been around at least since the early 1970s, but perhaps longer than that. Even those who have been part of the group for 25 or 30 years aren’t exactly sure when it started. Chester Baker, who was the organization’s secretary for many years, spent several hours organizing the meeting minutes and putting them into chronological order. He remembers seeing meeting minutes dated in the early 1970s, but thinks there may have been meetings before that. “But I can’t prove it,” said Chester. “It may have just been a couple of beekeepers sitting around talking….and there’s no record of it.”
Most folks give credit for the organization’s beginning to Al Bueckers, of Sauk Rapids, and Dick Bronder, of Sartell. “There was a bee inspector around at that time, too,” says Chester. “He may have been involved in starting the group.”
According to Conrad Legatt, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture used to require both commercial and hobby beehives to be inspected. Clarence Nothnagel was the local inspector, and was very involved in the early days of the Tri-County Beekeepers Association. Al Bueckers and Clarence Nothnagel have since passed away, but they are remembered fondly by those beekeepers who knew them. “Clarence is the one who recruited me into the group,” says Conrad. “That’s been about 30 years ago now.”
Conrad first became interested in bees and beekeeping when he was in high school. When he had to write a term paper, he decided to write it about bees. It took a few years after high school for Conrad to get the chance to have his own hive, but once he did, he kept on going. This year, Conrad has about 50 hives, some at his own home, but many placed at farms and orchards in the surrounding area. Even with 50 hives, Conrad is considered a hobby beekeeper, as are all the members of the Tri-County Beekeepers Association. Commercial beekeepers would be more likely to have 25-30 hives per location, with several locations giving them a total of 600 to 700 hives or more. They also often move their bees from northern to southern states to pollinate crops, depending on the season.
Chester Baker, who has four bee hives mainly in order to pollinate his huge garden, says that the main focus of the group is education. Most meetings are spent talking about what is happening in local hives, as well as the news for bees in Minnesota and the rest of the world. The TCBA also has a small lending library, which contains books about bees and beekeeping which can be checked out by members. There are regular speakers and events which provide learning experiences for members. Speakers have included University of Minnesota entomologist and leader in bee research, Dr. Marla Spivak, as well as other noted beekeepers. Field days give members a chance to see a particular skill demonstrated, such as separating queens or utilizing a solar wax melter.
Another role of the TCBA is to provide camaraderie for other beekeepers. Those who have been keeping bees for a while also try to answer questions for newcomers. As Conrad Legatt says, “There are no dumb questions. We weren’t born with a [hive] smoker in our hands and a [beekeeping] veil on our heads!”
The TCBA gives a monetary contribution to the University of Minnesota to help fund their research into bees and bee diseases. The University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology has been ranked in the top five nationally since 1985. Dr. Marla Spivak, the University of Minnesota entomologist who runs the U of M’s Bee Lab, is considered to be a world leader in bee research. She and her team have recently developed a bee, called the “Minnesota Hygienic Bee,” which can detect and remove damaging diseases and parasites from the hive, helping bees defend themselves naturally. “We want to support the research,” says Chester Baker, pointing out that bees pollinate approximately one third of the food we eat. “Without bees in this world, we’d be in a world of hurt as far as producing food is concerned.”
The members of the TCBA come from all walks of life, and from the farthest reaches of the three counties of Stearns, Benton and Sherburne. The main requirement for being a member is being interested in bees and beekeeping. Jim DeGiovanni, owner of a hobby farm in St. Joseph, is fairly new to the craft of beekeeping. A St. Cloud lawyer for many years, he moved to acreage in the country and began raising certified organic fruits and vegetables, in addition to Icelandic sheep and a few chickens. He got into beekeeping in order to facilitate the pollination of his fruits and vegetables. Jim says that the TCBA is a great place to learn about bees. He is thankful that the longtime members of the TCBA continue to be part of the organization. “They have answered so many questions and helped me in so many ways,” says Jim.
The Tri-County Beekeepers Association meets monthly, February through November, at the Whitney Center in St. Cloud. Meetings are generally held the first Tuesday of the month. The schedule is posted on their website under the meetings tab at www.tricountybeekeepers.com.
For more photos of the beekeepers, visit the gallery at Sr. Perspective web page at www.srperspective.com.